By Grace | A Journey Through Anorexia

EMPORIA, Kan. (WIBW) - "By grace."

The words from Ephesians 2 are tattooed on Megan Bollinger's wrist. For her, it is more than a spiritual belief. It is a reminder of the reality that she truly has been saved.

"When I share my story I realize why I fight every day and how dark of a place I came from," Megan said. "I would never want to go back there."

A Healthy Change
Megan's story begins in the fall of 2008. She was 20-years old and had returned to the fall semester at the University of Kansas. She had an apartment by herself and decided it was a good time to make some changes. Blessed with a naturally petite frame that stayed between 110 ad 115 pounds, Megan never struggled with her weight. Still, she wanted to eat better and start a regular exercise program.

The goal of a healthier lifestyle went horribly wrong.

"I'm very much an overachiever and a perfectionist," Megan said. "I wanted to see if I could be really good at exercising and being the definition of health."

Over the Edge
She was too good.

Fueled by compliments, Megan started losing weight. She wanted to be better, she says, stronger.

When she returned home to Emporia for Thanksgiving, it was noticeable. By Christmas, parents Lynette and Tim were alarmed.

Lynette says they never heard much about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders and certainly did not know anyone who had one. While they knew in their minds something was wrong, they could not put together exactly what it was.

They also didn't know what Megan's life at school in Lawrence had become. Between trips to the rec center and home DVDs, she was working out four hours a day. She says she would become annoyed if the rec center opened three minutes late because it was three minutes less she had to work out. She took the longest routes to get to her classes, taking stairs as much as she could and loading down her backpack to add to the challenge. She was eating barely a thousand calories a day, and would only consume oatmeal, a specific brand of low-fat no-carb yogurt and unsweetened tea. Plus, it was all measured in the same measuring cups and eaten from the same bowls. The calorie intake was added up on multiple calculators - one might be wrong, she says - and posted along with her frequent weigh-ins on post-it notes scattered around her apartment.

Megan also was isolating herself. She pushed away anyone who would express concern, thinking they were simply jealous of her discipline and trying to disrupt her life. She became very rigid, rarely doing out and certainly never dining with friends.

"I realized my life was being consumed by something unhealthy, although I had no desire to change it," Megan said. "There was still nothing wrong with me."

Getting Help
Her parents knew there was. The Megan who her father says could be testy and temperamental, but filled with smiles and hugs, was slipping away.

"She would not smile, she wouldn't cry," Tim said. "It was like having a zombie in your home."

The hardest change to see, he and Lynnette agreed, was that she wouldn't let them hug her.

"We'd hug her anyway and she'd keep her arms at her side," Lynnette said.

They tried outpatient therapists, but Megan refused to cooperate. By February, either Tim or Lynette drove every night from Emporia to Megan's apartment in Lawrence to make sure she was all right - and ready to take her to the hospital if it wasn't.

Finally, in April, they checked her into a program in Kansas City.

"I did not want to go to the hospital," Megan said. "I said really cruel things to them."

Megan was immediately admitted to the program's critical care unit. She weighed 76 pounds. Tim says the doctors told them that, most likely, if they hadn't gotten her in when they did, she had a week to live.

"We thought, 'What triggered this? What made it happen?'" Lynnette said.

Seeking Answers
Unfortunately, experts say it's a question with no easy answer.

Dr. Ann Sachs, a physician in internal medicine and pediatrics at Topeka's Cotton-O'Neil Clinic, says eating disorders tend to be more associated with anxiety, depression or obsessive personality, whether it's anorexia, bulimia or binge eating.

Sachs says anorexics in particular don't see what's facing them in the mirror. While other people will see the patient is thin to the point of being unhealthy, the anorexic's mind simply cannot grasp it. It's a situation that makes convincing them to get help a challenge.

Sachs says treatment will take a team approach. The sooner family and friends speak up, the better, because the longer the disease is allowed to take hold, the harder it is to change their mindset.

Facing Fears
It took more than two months for Megan to admit she needed to change. She remained hospitalized for two more months after that.

One day, Megan says, she looked around at fellow patients who were in their 60s and 70s and still struggling with the disease. She says it hit then that it was not the life she wanted.

"I realized I had to give this 'best friend' up because it's killing me," she said.

But it was not - and is not - easy. In fact, Megan says, it's terrifying. If you're afraid of the dark, she says, you can turn on the light. When your fear is food, you have to face it several times every day because you cannot avoid eating. If you do, she says she finally accepted, the alternative is dying.

While she did survive and continues the emotional recovery, the anorexia left Megan with permanent damage to her heart and blood pressure, weakened bones, a troubled digestive system and possibly impacted her fertility.

No Turning Back
Despite the fears, Megan says, she knows she doesn't want to go back.

Just before she entered the hospital, her parents took photos of her in her undergarments, hoping her appearance would shock her.

It didn't at the time, she says, but it does now.

"I see nothing beautiful," she said looking at the photos. "I see nothing I would aspire to have back."

Sharing Her Story
Megan's parents say they couldn't be more proud of Megan's recovery. They also support her decision to share her story, believing someone like Megan could have helped their family.

"If we had known one person that had an eating disorder and they'd talked about it," Lynnette said, "maybe we would have ddone things totally different."

Megan says her goal is to help people see that anorexia and other eating disorders are not glamorous or about vanity. She says the illness is not a choice.

"The illness is something you can't control because it take over your life unless you get help," she says.

It's why she chose to tattoo those words - by grace - on her wrist. It is a reminder that in saving herself, she might show someone else the grace shown her.